After running forward in the race to vaccinate its population against the coronavirus, Israel struck a deal with Pfizer, promising to share vast tons of medical data with the international drug giant in return for the continued flow of its difficult-to-use vaccine. get.
Supporters say the deal could allow Israel to become the first country to vaccinate most of its population, while providing valuable research that could help the rest of the world.
But critics say the deal raises major ethical concerns, including possible breaches of privacy and a deepening of the global divide that allows rich countries to stockpile vaccines while poorer populations, including Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza have to wait longer to be inoculated.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is perplexed as Israel’s chief vaccinator ahead of the country’s March elections – said earlier this month he had reached a deal with Pfizer chief executive to speed up vaccine deliveries to Israel.
“Israel will be a model world state,” he said. “Israel will share with Pfizer and with the world the statistical data that will help develop strategies to defeat the coronavirus.”
Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told The Associated Press that the government would release data to “see how this influences, first of all, the level of the disease in Israel, the possibility of opening the economy, the different aspects of social life, and whether there are any effects of vaccination ”.
Pfizer’s vaccine, developed with German partner BioNTech, has received emergency approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Union regulatory agency and is believed to offer up to 95% protection against COVID-19.
But much remains unknown, especially if it offers long-term protection and if it can prevent transmission of the virus.
Israel, home to some 9.3 million people, is considered an ideal place to study these questions. Its mandatory universal healthcare is provided by four publicly funded HMOs with meticulously digitized medical records.
This centralized system has helped Israel deliver more than 2 million doses of the vaccine in less than a month. Israel has also purchased doses of Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.
The vaccination blitz is a matter of national pride. He is also at the center of Netanyahu’s reelection campaign as he seeks to distract from his ongoing corruption trial, Israel’s deep economic crisis and the latest wave of the virus.
The Ministry of Health has recorded more than 551,000 cases since the start of the pandemic and more than 4,000 deaths. Israeli officials say they aim to have most of the country immunized by the end of March, just around election day.
But the exact quid pro quo between Israel and Pfizer is unclear, even after a redacted version of the deal was released by Israel’s health ministry on Sunday.
Neither Israel nor Pfizer would say how much Israel paid for the vaccines, although Edelstein called it a “classic win-win” for both sides. Israeli media reported that Israel paid at least 50% more than other countries.
The data would be shared with the World Health Organization, but the global body has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Earlier this month, the WHO chief called on drugmakers and richer countries to “stop making bilateral deals,” saying they undermine a UN-backed effort to expand the ‘access.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did not identify any country or company.
Last week, Dr Siddhartha Datta, WHO’s program manager in Europe for vaccine and vaccine-preventable diseases, said the agency was trying to collect ‘disaggregated’ data – based on age, gender, region, job and other factors – and account for any security. problems as vaccines are deployed.
Israel had already announced the acquisition of millions of doses of vaccines before the announcement of the Pfizer deal.
It is not known how the quantity or pace of deliveries changed, or whether vaccines were diverted from other countries.
The arrangement drew attention to the uneven distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries.
According to a recent estimate by the International Rescue Committee, the WHO global COVAX campaign would likely vaccinate only 20% of low-income countries around the world by the end of 2021.
“This is a questionable deal and under the table that prefers some countries to others without any transparency,” said Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University in Washington.
“Ultimately, it will be the low- and middle-income countries that will be left behind.”
Palestinians excluded from vaccination campaign
Dr Nadav Davidovitch, director of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University and government adviser on coronavirus policy, said the deal raised troubling concerns about the growing disparity in efforts to vaccination.
“In order to eradicate COVID-19 or at least control it effectively, we need to have the big picture,” Davidovitch said.
This disparity is particularly striking in the case of Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who live under varying degrees of Israeli control and have not yet received vaccines.
While vaccinating its own Arab citizens and Palestinian residents of Israel annexed East Jerusalem, Israel asserts that it is not responsible for inoculating Palestinians. Edelstein said Israel would consider helping once it takes care of its own citizens.
But Palestinians and major human rights groups say Israel remains an occupying power and is responsible for providing them with vaccines. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh recently accused Israel of “racism” but has not publicly called for vaccines.
With tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians working in Israel and its West Bank settlements, experts say Israel should share vaccines for ethical and practical reasons.
“I really think we have to see how we get the vaccine for the Palestinian Authority,” said Davidovich, acting president of the Israel Association of Public Health Professionals. “We are discussing this with the Minister of Health and I really hope that this problem will be resolved soon.
The ethics of an agreement
It is also not known what information is shared with Pfizer. According to the redacted agreement, “no identifiable health information” should be shared and the research should be published in a recognized medical journal.
He said Israel would provide Pfizer with weekly data on different age groups and demographics. The objective, he said, is “to analyze the epidemiological data resulting from the deployment of the product, in order to determine whether the herd’s immunity is reached after reaching a certain percentage of vaccination coverage in Israel”.
The data, he added, “is aimed at helping end the global COVID-19 pandemic for the benefit of all patients inside and outside of Israel.”
Privacy Israel, an advocacy group that had asked the government to disclose the agreement, welcomed its publication, but said some questions remained unanswered, mainly about the handling and security of private information.
Some details, such as key dates and the names of officials involved, had also been redacted. Still, he said there was “a little more certainty” about sharing information with a global business.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, digital privacy expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, questioned the ethics of a deal that could bring millions in profits for Pfizer.
She also said sharing large amounts of information could still endanger individuals’ privacy, even though it is supposed to be made anonymous.
“If, God forbid, the dataset is to be hacked, then the risk will be yours,” she said, addressing Israeli citizens.